Philip Ferraro, UFC - On August 29th in Portland, Oregon, another dream fight becomes reality as Randy Couture and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira square off in the main event of UFC 102. Both men have been ranked in the top 10 for the greater part of their careers, and have undoubtedly carved out their place in the history of the sport. For a long time, however, they fought in separate organizations - leaving fans to debate the outcome of a Couture-Nogueira bout. Now, with both legends in the Octagon, the question fans have asked for a long time will be answered.
On August 29th in Portland, Oregon, another dream fight becomes reality as Randy Couture and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira square off in the main event of UFC 102. Both men have been ranked in the top 10 for the greater part of their careers, and have undoubtedly carved out their place in the history of the sport. For a long time, however, they fought in separate organizations - leaving fans to debate the outcome of a Couture-Nogueira bout. Now, with both legends in the Octagon, the question fans have asked for a long time will be answered.
So just how have these two storied careers found their way to the Rose Garden Arena?
1997 - Randy Couture, a decorated Greco-Roman wrestler, found in the UFC an opportunity to continue competing as his wrestling career ended. After winning two fights at his UFC 13 debut, "The Natural" Couture was matched against Vitor Belfort - heralded as the sport's future. The explosive "Phenom", whose pre-fight write-up declared that he had "no known weaknesses" was expected to run through the 34-year-old Couture. But "The Natural” weathered the early storm of Belfort, wearing down the Brazilian and finishing him on the mat with punches at 8 minutes and 15 seconds. The MMA world witnessed Couture's career M.O.: underdog uses a perfectly executed gameplan to pull off a huge upset.
"The Natural" soon won the heavyweight title off Maurice Smith, before leaving the UFC following a contract dispute - returning to the organization just once in the next three years to recover his belt from Kevin Randleman.
23 year old Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Antonio Rodrigo "Minotauro" Nogueira made his MMA debut in 1999. He'd recently been awarded black belts in Judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu and hadn't fought in mixed martial arts - but was no stranger to big hits. He was run over by a truck at age 10 and hospitalized for 11 months, comatose for 4 days and unable to walk for over a year - a chunk of flesh missing from his back remains as a testament to his brush with death. He submitted his first four opponents in the first round and won a decision over UFC veteran Jeremy Horn in the WEF. The Brazilian then began competing in the Japanese organization "RINGS".
Couture, adrift from the UFC, also entered "RINGS", fighting in a 2000-2001 tournament. He reached the semi-final fight before being submitted. Had he won, he would have met the tournament's eventual winner - "Minotauro" Nogueira, who became champion after 4 submissions and a decision. Instead, their paths diverged again - Couture returning to the UFC and Nogueira entering Japan's PRIDE fighting championships.
Between 2001 and 2005, "Minotauro" became an MMA icon in Japan - winning the heavyweight title and beating notables like Heath Herring, Dan Henderson, Mark Coleman and Ricco Rodriguez, while losing only to Fedor Emelianenko. Against Mirko Cro Cop, after being dominated in the first round and dropped by a headkick, Nogueira recovered - armbarring the Croatian in the second. In a fight against 6'5, 350 pound Bob Sapp, Nogueira endured over 10 minutes of savage punishment from his giant opponent, including a pro-wrestling style piledriver, before he submitted his foe. His preternatural ability to survive a beating and win endeared him most to the fans. Nogueira's heart and skill - his wizardry on the ground, his technical boxing and endurance saw him beat some of the world's best heavyweights. He won legions of fans and a chapter in the history of MMA.
2001 - Fighting in the UFC Octagon, Couture defended his heavyweight title twice in classic matchups against Pedro Rizzo before his reign ended after losses to Josh Barnett and Ricco Rodriguez. Couture seemed done in the UFC - he didn't appear capable of dealing with the new breed of large, skilled heavyweight, and, at 39, wasn't expected to get much better. To jumpstart his career, he dropped to the 205-pound division to fight interim champion Chuck Liddell. Nobody expected Couture to derail Liddell's 10 fight win streak, let alone in dominant fashion - but that's what he did, outstriking “The Iceman”, taking him down at will and stopping him with ground-and-pound in the third. Soon after, he beat Tito Ortiz in a one-sided five round contest against his heavily-favored, younger opponent to become the UFC light heavyweight champion. He was now well and truly a UFC legend.
As they competed in different time-zones, fans had to imagine how a Couture-Nogueira clash would unfold. The fight happened many times in text on MMA message boards, with compelling arguments from fans in both camps - but it never became more than a hypothetical showdown.
In 2005, the likeable Couture was instrumental in popularizing the sport as coach on season 1 of The Ultimate Fighter. Following the season, Couture lost by knockout to opposing coach Chuck Liddell, a feat which Chuck then repeated in Liddell-Couture 3 in 2006. Apparently succumbing to Father Time, Couture announced his retirement, and the MMA world bid farewell to its great champion. Randy, apparently, would now use his fighting expertise passively, as a guest commentator and MMA trainer.
Match ups like Couture-Nogueira, among others, would never happen - a frustrating prospect for the fans.
Nogueira, meanwhile, continued the successful run in Japan that included unanimous decisions over Josh Barnett and Fabricio Werdum. But in 2006, after a 10 year existence, PRIDE fighting championships imploded amid financial troubles. Zuffa purchased the organization, and, though the promotion itself was never resurrected, PRIDE's talent migrated to the Octagon - including "Minotauro".
2007 - Nearly 45, after a year out of action, Couture was restless. He knew he could beat then-heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia. Reprising his role as underdog, he requested a match against "The Maine-iac" Sylvia for the title. Observers can't be blamed for doubting Couture again - the aging fighter was returning from a brutal knockout loss to Liddell in order to fight 31-year old Sylvia, who was on a six fight win streak. Couture dropped Sylvia seconds after the opening bell with an overhand right, and dominated his 6'8 foe, outboxing him and scoring takedown after takedown en-route to a five round shutout. He won the heavyweight title again, and the legend of Couture continued. Unhappy with his contract, Couture temporarily put his title on hold after an impressive title defense against Gabriel Gonzaga in August of 2007.
2008 - Nogueira's subsequent match against Tim Sylvia for the interim UFC title followed a familiar pattern for the tough Brazilian. Knocked down and dominated standing early, Nogueira persisted and in the third round pulled the giant down to the mat, where he made quick work of him - submitting him with a guillotine choke, becoming the only man to have held both a PRIDE and UFC title belt. It was another fight with a Hollywood storyline for the Brazilian survivor.
Couture returned to the organization in 2008, and a Couture-Nogueira match to unite the heavyweight titles finally appeared likely, but both suffered setbacks late in the year. Couture was TKO'd by Brock Lesnar in the second round of their bout. Nogueira was stopped by Frank Mir in the second round of their fight, as he attempted to defend his interim heavyweight title - the first knockout loss of his career.
But on Saturday, the stars are finally aligned, and they will meet in the Octagon.
So what are Nogueira and Couture capable of in the heavyweight division? Was Nogueira's loss to Mir the result of injury and an off night? Was Couture's loss to Lesnar the result of simply being caught? Or does it reflect that they've lost a step? The winner will only be a short distance from a title shot, and the performance of both fighters will be very telling.
And aside from immediate implications for the heavyweight division, their match is a matter of legacy. Who, between these two legends, was better? There won't be any speculation - a definitive answer to one of the sport’s burning questions will soon be recorded in the history books, and the entire fight world will be watching for that answer this weekend.